Companies & Industries

New research shows women execs really do think differently—that's why we need more

Boards include only 10% women.

(Photo: May Truong)

(Photo: May Truong)

Chris Bart was perplexed. He’d studied the growing pile of research highlighting how female board directors boost corporate performance. Some of the effects were measurable—boards with more women are linked to a 53% higher return on equity, according to one study, and their companies go bankrupt less frequently. (The presence of even one female director can reduce the risk of going belly up by 20%.) Others were more qualitative: women ask more questions, rather than nodding through decisions. But if the business case was so compelling, why had female representation on boards stalled at around 10% in Canada? More important, why did having women on a board make a difference at all?

The McMaster University business professor decided to pursue a hunch, using a readily available resource. For years, he’d been administering a test to help board members assess their decision-making skills, as part of a training program he’d developed for corporate directors. He and his research partner, Greg McQueen, now had a sample substantial enough to parse in a new way: along gender lines.

The results showed female board members make decisions differently than their male counterparts. Women relied more often on what the researchers call “complex moral reasoning.” By weighing a broader range of factors and implications, women fared better at making “consistently fair decisions when competing interests are at stake.” Men tended to base their decisions on rules and traditions. Women’s instincts made them better problem-solvers, but the researchers posited that those tendencies could make them look like troublemakers on male-dominated boards.

“Could this be one of the prime motivators for why male-dominated boards resist having women on boards?” the researchers speculated. “They do not want to have to deal with the challenge of being challenged.”

But if corporations dislike how women make decisions, they need to get over it. Increasingly, innate—and beneficial—gender differences are being used to build a business case for female advancement. Women are different, and businesses ignore this at their peril, whether it’s by shutting out the unique talent that women bring to boardrooms and C-suites, or by failing to recognize what female employees want from their managers and losing them to savvy competitors. It’s not about building on-site daycares—it’s about tapping the best candidate pools and ensuring retention of star employees.

Barbara Annis, an expert on workplace gender issues, describes the current thinking about the differences between men and women this way: “We have moved from ‘great minds think alike’ to ‘great minds think unalike.’ It’s incredibly freeing for men, and it is incredibly validating for women.”

If that sounds like Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, that’s not surprising: Annis has teamed up with John Gray, the author of that vociferously debated 1992 bestseller, on a new book that explores “gender blind spots” in the workplace. Due out next month, Work With Me will likely kick-start a new round of conversation about the gender divide. For some women, it’ll offer a welcome counterpoint to the Lean In philosophy espoused by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. While Sandberg exhorts women to be more assertive and ambitious, to put their names forward for high-powered jobs—to act a little less Venus and a little more Mars—Annis’s “gender-intelligent” philosophy urges the workplace to do a little leaning in, too, and recognize women for who and what they are.


What does a “gender-intelligent” workplace look like? Deloitte, an early adopter of gender intelligence, began sending partners and senior managers to training sessions during the 1990s; over the past year, the consulting firm sent 125 partners, and chief diversity officer Jane Allen says the training has changed corporate culture. The sessions draw heavily on brain science to shed light on the innate differences between men and women—and enable managers and colleagues to work “across” them. When picking leaders, for instance, managers learn to look beyond the male stereotype—a strong, take-charge authoritarian—and watch for behaviours that suggest leadership in women, such as effective information-gathering and collaboration skills. Deloitte is also considering eliminating the self-assessment component of the company’s performance reviews, she says, since research shows that women tend to be unfairly critical of themselves and their accomplishments compared to men.

Doug Ward, a management consultant with Deloitte, recalls the biggest “aha” moment during his first gender-intelligence workshop. The leader had separated the men from the women and asked each group to go away and answer one question: What was their personal definition of success? The groups came back and reported their answers, Ward says, describing the difference that quickly emerged: “The men all agreed that success is winning,” he says. “You know, ‘We won, so we were successful.’ But the women all came back and said that they rate success as being valued.”

As a manager of both male and female employees, Ward says the training had a profound impact. He realized his default management setting was attuned to male attitudes. At bonus time, for instance, if his team had a plan that attached financial rewards to specific targets, he believed the general understanding was that “if you haven’t made plan, well, duh, there’s no bonus. And men understand that. But women will feel undervalued—that’s a key thing. It means that I need to go and talk to them and let them know they’re valued.”

The differences in Ward’s staff might seem like the result of cultural norms. Men are taught to play to win; women to value self-esteem. But a raft of brain science studies (featured in Annis and Gray’s book) show that some of the behaviours appear to be hardwired. For instance, the inferior parietal lobule (IPL), which receives brain signals associated with attempts to determine identity, direction and meaning, is housed more on the left side of the brain in men. This reliance on the left side tends to make men more action-oriented, with a higher focus on task and achievement. In women, the IPL is larger on the right—the intuitive, thoughtful and subjective side—which makes them more inclined to measure success in terms of collaboration and relationship-building.

Ward said the science helps demystify behaviours and cites another practice he’s adopted as a result of his gender-intelligence training: asking women who have been keeping quiet during a meeting to share their opinion. Because men often dominate the conversation (their task-oriented, action-focused brains compete to be heard), women sometimes get shut out. Yet studies show that women’s brains excel at integrating and assimilating information. (Females have more white matter, the tissue that connects different parts of the brain while men have more grey matter, which handles information processing.) Ward says female team members are often considering multiple factors and issues that bear considering. “We’ve got to stop the meeting,” Wards says, and ask, “What do you think?”

Neurological differences may contribute to the different decision-making styles identified in Bart’s study. To assess how board members think, he gives them a questionnaire that asks them to ponder scenarios like this: imagine a village in India that’s experiencing an unprecedented famine. Mustaq Singh’s family is near starvation, and he’s heard that a rich man in town is hoarding food, waiting for the price to rise so he can make a huge profit. Mustaq is considering stealing enough to feed his family—an amount so negligible the man probably wouldn’t miss it. Should he do it?

Directors participating in this survey are asked to answer yes, no or I don’t know, and then rank the importance of 12 questions they might ask themselves while making the decision, such as “Shouldn’t the community laws be upheld?” and “Would stealing bring about more total good for everybody concerned or wouldn’t it?”

A normative reasoner—someone who makes decisions based on established rules and traditions—would likely say that Singh shouldn’t steal, and rank the question about upholding the law as a key factor in the decision. Someone who answered that Singh should take the food, and gave the greater social good as the No. 1 reason, is more predisposed to complex moral reasoning—the type of decision-making that the McMaster research found women used more frequently. Women consider the broader social implications of their actions, and challenge authority and tradition. Researchers link these tendencies to outcomes like greater financial returns, more attention paid to risk oversight and control, and insistence on conflict-of-interest guidelines.

There are signs of a growing awareness about the benefits of female corporate leadership. The federal government has established an advisory panel aimed at boosting the number of women on Canadian boards, and Morgan Stanley recently introduced a new investment portfolio that includes only companies with a commitment to female board members.

Still, some worry that viewing the workplace through a gender-specific lens just leads to new stereotypes at a time when the world needs fewer of them. Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, CEO of the gender consulting firm 20-first, wishes the conversations about women in the workplace could move beyond gender stereotypes—“I think it’s suicidal to talk about women being better or men being better”—and even beyond mention of gender itself. In a way, Bart agrees. Taken to its logical extreme, his research seems to argue that boards should have only female directors, but he’s careful to point out that not all women score highly on complex moral reason (sometimes known as “CMR”) decision-making, and some men do. Besides, he adds, there’s value to normative thinking, too—rules and traditions often exist for good reasons.

Ward says his gender intelligence training has made him generally more responsive to different perspectives, and better attuned to appreciate them when they come from unexpected places: “The same sort of thinking applies to how I might deal with introverts and extroverts,” he points out, “including an introverted man.”

But Bart argues it would be wrong for businesses to dismiss studies suggesting women might make better corporate leaders thanks to their innate moral reasoning. If corporate leaders ignore the evidence, it might be they’re trying to avoid the questioning that women bring to a board. “It would only seem reasonable to ask: from a fiduciary duty standpoint, in whose best interests are they really serving?” Bart says. “Because certainly, it’s not the corporation.

With reporting by Leah Eichler